Beware of that voice in your head

By Richard Rhodes

Once a year I give a seminar on writing to a group of honor students at Stanford University. For the shock value, I edit a few pages of the senior theses that they’re writing. I cushion the blow—red correction marks and rewrites dense on every page—by telling them that my own work looks the same way after I edit it.

Although every writer dreams of getting it right on the first pass, very few succeed. Writing is a craft and, like all craft, proceeds by stages: conception, material selection, rough shaping, detailed shaping, sanding and finishing. (That’s for writing nonfiction, which feels like woodworking to me. Writing fiction is more like throwing clay, and writing poetry more like watchmaking.)

I’ve puzzled over the difficulty that students have with editing, and I think I’ve identified its source: It’s their self-talk. We all talk to ourselves, inside our heads. That’s what consciousness is.

Many novice writers, students in particular, think that writing is little more than copying down their self-talk, the palaver of the voices they hear in their heads. Of course, self-talk is thinking, and writing begins with thinking. But it doesn’t end there.

We don’t talk to ourselves in finished sentences. We use shorthand, code words, private references. We hear other voices in our head as well, the voices of those who have influenced us so deeply that we carry them around with us like phantom companions.

This internal monologue makes good sense to us but very little sense to a reader when it’s spilled onto the page. It’s like a strange dialect, only distantly related to the common tongue that we share.

When I’m teaching students, then, I focus first on voice. It’s never occurred to most of them that they use a constructed voice when they write. Because they’re transcribing their self-talk more or less, they think that they’re writing in their “own” voice.

I point out that they use different voices for different forms of writing, from school papers to emails home to cellphone texts. I tell them that the voice of a school paper is an invented voice, as much as the voice of the narrator in a novel.

The work of writing, I tell them, isn’t simply copying down their self-talk. If they think so, I say, try transcribing a conversation and see how much is redundant or extraneous.

No, the work of writing is deliberately choosing a voice, a fictional construct, in which to argue or narrate, and then, through draft after successive draft, composing and editing a translation of their self-talk into prose that others can read and understand.

This editing doesn’t mean that they have to leave out the personal or the idiosyncratic. It just means that they have to rewrite their self-talk to open up what’s private and eliminate what’s extraneous, using the voice that they’ve chosen to anchor the text in a specific point of view.

I tell them about the voice that I chose for my history “The Making of the Atomic Bomb.” I knew that I would be writing a story that was both tragic and epic, and I wanted a narrative voice that could carry that much weight.

To shape it, I made two choices: to follow the style of the great English historians by using balanced, periodic sentences (sentences that unfold gradually, saving the subject and verb for the end) and never to use a contraction.

Miraculously enough, some of the students get the point and trim their self-talk to the wind of clear discourse. They write better as a result.

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